Room to Breathe
I can’t stand Adam Sandler, can’t stand his pandering to the basest, most juvenile instincts of his audience, can’t stand pretty much anything about him. I once vowed never to see another Adam Sandler movie, but this was before he started taking on dramatic roles and I was forced to reconsider this self-ban… and it turned out that I liked him very much in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love. But now, after Reign Over Me, I wonder whether he’s as one-note as a dramatic actor as he is as a comedian.
Sandler is one monotone note here: dead-eyed hollowness standing in for grief, much as dead-eyed hollowness stood in for emotional repression in Love (which makes me start to wonder whether the nuances I thought I saw in him in that film were really there at all). His Charlie Fineman sits around his empty apartment playing video games, or scooters around the streets of Manhattan with headphones blaring music into his ears — this is about all he can manage since his wife and three young daughters were killed on 9/11. He’s dropped out of his work — he was a dentist — and out of the lives of his in-laws, the only family he has left. It’s not that he simply cannot talk about his loss: he denies it happened, denies that he ever had a wife and daughters. But Sandler (Click, The Longest Yard) can’t sell it, at least not to me. Behind the physical expressions of his supposed inner pain — his shuffle and his muttering and his unwillingness to look anyone in the eye — is nothing. Charlie is but a vague sketch of pain. When he has some dialogue to speak that expresses in words his anguish — this comes at the end of the film, in a brief confrontation with the in-laws — the moment is heartbreaking, and Sandler flares momentarily to life. But I don’t believe a second of anything about Charlie before that moment, and then it’s too late.
So I prefer to think of Reign Over Me not as an Adam Sandler movie but a Don Cheadle movie, and that makes me feel a bit better about it. Cheadle is Alan Johnson, Charlie’s former college roommate, who runs into Charlie by chance on the street one day; lonely Charlie latches on to Alan as someone who didn’t know him as a family man, someone not from the life he lost. Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda, Ocean’s Twelve) is as concentrated as he always is, though he has less to work with than Sandler — his story is the usual, trite “my wife doesn’t understand I need space” stuff; Jada Pinkett Smith (Madagascar, Collateral) as Alan’s wife is stuck in the typical wife-as-nag role. Alan’s story is, alas, just a few steps away from the utter tripe of I Think I Love My Wife, except here it’s the bored husband “cheating” by reverting back to adolescence and hanging out too much with his guy-pal drinking beer. Cheadle’s good enough to make it work in a way that Chris Rock can’t, but it’s still depressingly ordinary.
But when he shoots for the less ordinary, writer-director Mike Binder doesn’t fare too well, either. A subplot involving a patient of Alan’s — he’s a dentist too — is strained, awkward, and borders on the misogynist, forcing Saffron Burrows (Troy, Peter Pan), as the patient, into the uneviable position of trying to make believable the kind of female character that exists only in men’s fantasies. That she’s still around by the end of the film — that Alan can stand to be in the same room with her — strains credulity.
She is the perfect illustration of how Binder is simply trying too hard. His film The Upside of Anger a few years ago was a much better, much more subtle exploration of dealing with grief in the post-9/11 world, even if it was not explicitly about 9/11 as Reign is. That explictness is what sinks Reign in the end — Binder is trying to coerce emotions that don’t need coercing. The way he shoots the city of New York here, with a respect for the street and for how the city breathes, is one of the best tributes to my town I’ve seen since 9/11. I wish he’d given the rest of his story the same room to breathe.